WASHINGTON — A Pentagon business advocacy agency spent almost $150 million renting private “villas” and security for a “handful” of staff and visitors in Afghanistan, bypassing government housing that could have saved taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, according to an inspector general’s report released Thursday.
The Task Force Business Stability Operations last month was blasted by members of Congress after the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that it had spent $43 million for a gas station there that should have cost $500,000.
In the housing case, Inspector General John Sopko, in a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, questioned the need for the “western-style hotel accommodations,” flat-screen TVs, private bodyguards and dining services of at least “three-star” quality for government workers and guests.
“If (task force) employees had instead lived at (Department of Defense) facilities in Afghanistan, where housing, security, and food service are routinely provided at little or no extra charge to DoD organizations, it appears the taxpayers would have saved tens of millions of dollars,” Sopko wrote.
Sopko’s letter also calls on the Pentagon to divulge more information on who stayed at the villas and approved the expenditures.
“We have received the recent letter from SIGAR and will respond,” Army Lt. Col. Joe Sowers, a Pentagon spokesman, said.
The bill for accommodations — 20% of the task force’s budget — provided housing and security for “no more than five to 10” staffers, former task force employees told investigators, the letter said. The inspector general estimates that housing a staff of 10 at the U.S. Embassy in 2014 would have cost $1.8 million, and little, or nothing, if they had bunked with troops at a military base.
Three contractors provided a level of luxury to villa residents in war-torn Afghanistan, which the CIA describes as “extremely poor, landlocked, and highly dependent on foreign aid.”
Each room in the villa — multi-story, modern buildings — was required to have flat-screen TVs of at least 27 inches, a DVD player and a mini-refrigerator. An upgraded villa for investors was required to provide “western-style hotel accommodations.”
Food service of at least three stars was required, too: “each meal containing at least two entrée choices and three side order choices, as well as three-course meals for ‘Special Events.’ ”
Other amenities included on-site laundry, “light snacks and water/tea/coffee/sodas available 24hrs.” Secure, low-profile transportation, business equipment, housekeeping, groundskeeping, cultural advisors and translators also were required.
Sopko attributed the decision to live in private accommodations to Paul Brinkley, a former Pentagon official and task force chief. A footnote in Sopko’s letter says Brinkley has not cooperated with requests for information.
Brinkley, now in private industry and reached by phone, said Sopko’s office had not reached out to him with questions raised in the letter, and he pledged to cooperate with investigators.
“I have not been contacted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction regarding the questions raised in the letter to the Department of Defense since I departed government service almost five years ago, but would be happy to meet and discuss these topics,” Brinkley said in a statement.
Brinkley added that the Pentagon and military command in Afghanistan had oversight of the task force during his tenure.
“Its unique operating posture — operating outside of military or diplomatic installations — was elemental to its successes and was clearly sanctioned by Pentagon leadership as well as the Congress,” Brinkley said.